The George Town Literary Festival 2011 - A storybook success


Notes from a small island
Muhammad Haji Salleh, the National Laureate, spoke at length on the linguistic peculiarities he found so interesting. “…English as a language is not so romantic, but more romantic than German! The Malay language ebbs and flows like the sea. Perhaps as a result of living by the sea.”

Unravelling the “photoshopped ideal” of the mainstream interpretation of Malaysian history, Farish Noor observed that history “needed to reflect honesty.” “It is a recurrent lament throughout South- East Asia that people don’t feel that they are reflected in the ‘national album’. Generations are asking ‘Where am I in national history?’” When asked about Penang’s “album” he compared it to Deep Purple’s second album. “…productive ambiguity, I hope there’ll never be a definitive album (for Penang). The moment that happens, there is a full stop!”

In November 2011, the weekend-long inaugural George Town Literary Festival got underway. It is indeed hard to believe that the 225-year-old city had never hosted a lit fest before.

Better late than never, no doubt, and the cosy festival with its mix of intellectual heavyweights and new authors was a well-organised, entertaining affair (I even bumped into an old friend based in Hong Kong, who had made the journey home just to attend the Festival).

Under the theme of “History & Heritage: where are our stories?”, the five authors – Farish Noor, Iskandar Al-Bakri, Muhammad Haji Salleh, Shih-Li Kow and Tan Twan Eng – read excerpts from their work before gamely tackling questions from the enthusiastic audience.

Festival producer Chee Sek Thim admitted that pulling the lit fest together in the space of three months was a challenge; a bigger unknown was audience reaction. “We didn't have any idea what the Penang audience was like. So, we organised the festival based on considerations of locality, funding source and the scale of the project. One aspect of the festival that stood out for me was the composition of the audience which was made up primarily of locals. I was particularly encouraged by this.”

Getting the author cocktail just right was crucial and the organisers set a high benchmark for future lit fests. Festival curator Bernice Chauly (a talented author, poet and filmmaker in her own right) explained, “I wanted to work with local writers first, and those who had some kind of connection with Penang; to work with different kinds of writing and narratives and how they view history. I also wanted a range of literary work, from poetry, to short fiction, historical fiction and non-fiction. You need to have a range of voices in a literary festival.”

It was apparent that the “range of voices” extended beyond the invited authors – the intimate nature of the sessions also gave voice to those in the audience willing to share their personal experiences. “I think once you've read something that's moved you, you will want to meet the person who wrote it. It’s a form of respect that goes both ways, and this is apparent in lit fests. It’s good for both the writer and the reader,” said Chauly.

The inaugural George Town Literary Festival was organised by Penang Global Tourism (PGT) and fully funded by the Penang state government.


Q&A with Tan Twan Eng

Penangite Tan Twan Eng, the author of the internationally acclaimed The Gift of Rain, shared his experiences at the inaugural George Town Literary Festival. 

How did you get involved in the Festival?

The curator, Bernice Chauly, contacted me via email out of the blue and invited me. The fact that the festival would be in George Town, one of my favourite places in the world, and that it would be the island's first ever literary festival influenced me in accepting the invitation. It made a lot of sense to me too, as my first novel, The Gift of Rain, is set in Penang. I haven't done any literary festivals in Malaysia, and to be asked to talk about The Gift of Rain, in Penang, no less - well, it felt like coming full circle.

Did you have any expectations of the fest? Were these met?

The fact that it was organised by Penang Global Tourism (PGT) meant that I had high expectations. I've been following PGT's activities online for a while, and it has done an incredible job promoting Penang.

My only concern when Bernice contacted me was that there might not be a good turnout for the event. But in all areas I need not have worried, my expectations were more than met – they were exceeded.

Having been to a number of literary festivals, I found the George Town Lit Fest to be very well-organised. There were no glitches in our transportation and hotel arrangements. Communication between the organisers and the writers about each day's schedule of events (in my experience, of vital importance to writers already nervous about having to speak in public) was also superb – the volunteers were well-briefed, knowledgeable, helpful, enthusiastic. And the turnout was overwhelming, I must say. What impressed me also was how extensive the media coverage of the festival was, in the weeks and days leading up to the event.

Were your interactions with the local audience different/similar to other lit fests?

The local audience was very clued-up and very vocal in their opinions, although the attendees seemed more interested in current political issues than the literary issues. The spectrum of the attendees was also wide, from university students to active retirees, from the locals to foreigners.

Like other literary festivals, there was the inevitable question raised, “What do you write with – pen and paper, or on a computer?”

What disappointed me was that the theme of the festival, “History & Heritage: where are our stories?” was not thoroughly explored by the moderators in my events. In any case, from the feedback given to me, I don't think the audience minded at all, and they seemed to have enjoyed the events greatly.

Anything in particular that stood out for you during the two days?

The traffic! But seriously, the generosity of spirit of everyone involved in the festival, from the volunteers helping out behind the scenes, to the hotels – the E&O, Campbell House – and to restaurants like China House, which threw open its doors to us and to the audience.

More than all this, there's an energy in Penang that I had never felt before. Energy, and yes, optimism and a clear, strong sense of direction. There was a distinct feeling of everyone working together to protect, preserve and showcase their island home.

Tan Twan Eng’s second book, The Garden of Evening Mists, is released in February 2012.

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